When Grace Belangia steps into her office, it could be at Starbucks, her kitchen or the parking lot of a soccer field.
She arranges meetings around ballet recitals and carpool duty. Clients can expect most e-mail replies after the kids are off to school and before the oven is heated for dinner.
At 44 and with two children in their teens, Belangia is at a point that the scale of life is beginning to tip more toward her career, something she never totally threw away but had put on hold to make motherhood a priority. A marketing and public relations specialist, she launched her own company in 2011 and is figuring out the perfect balance of family and work.
“I remember thinking in the hospital bed when my daughter was born that my career wasn’t going to peak at 29,” Belangia said. “I wanted to take the slow track. I also saw motherhood as a season of my life like summer, spring, winter or fall. This was the season of being a hands-on mother. Now, the last two years I’ve leaned into my career.”
The concept of women deciding whether to delve into work before raising a family, sacrifice a career for motherhood or find a way to balance both is nothing new. What has changed is all the resources women have when they are ready to refocus on a career.
The idea of women “leaning into” a career even while juggling children was thrust to the forefront this year with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg urges women to be confident about their ability to have a simultaneous career and family and to not shy away from advancement for fear of failure or the perception of abandoning motherhood.
It’s a movement that Belangia has embraced, having read the book cover to cover and deciding she can be both mom and a professional on her own terms.
“I can navigate family and work, and it’s not always between 8 and 5,” she said.
According to a 2012 National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies report, 71.3 percent of women with children are in the workforce. Women are going back to work sooner after having children, with 56.5 percent of women with a child less than a year old in the workforce.
Kathy Ullrich, the director of alumni career services for the UCLA Anderson School of Management, said that when women return to a career after a break for motherhood, their reputations are often intact the way they left them.
“There’s this kind of national phenomenon that your reputation gets cemented where you last worked,” Ullrich said. “If they reach out to their network from 15 years ago, everyone will say, ‘Oh wow, great to talk to you,’ and they’ll assume they’re doing the same level of work as 15 years ago.”
In Belangia’s case, she was able to maintain contacts and references from her PR work because she did freelance work.
Having grown up in Northern California, Belangia received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA and a master’s in communication from San Jose State University. She worked as an event planner for the city of Palo Alto when she met a Navy pilot named Woody at a church retreat.
They got married, and Woody’s career change to real estate developer brought the couple to Augusta in 1994.
Belangia worked as the director of communications for the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau until 1997, when she became a mother.
Over the next 15 years, Belangia “leaned in” to motherhood. The professional turned domestic but never totally gave up her career. She did freelance marketing work for more than a dozen companies when she wanted, keeping her portfolio alive by writing columns for publications, leading social media for businesses, running Web sites for companies and acting as spokeswoman for CEOs.
As her children got older – Chloe is 15 and Lucas is 13 – the time was right for her to spend more time on work. Launching her company, 3rd Degree Media, has allowed her to pick up more clients and consolidate her work. She was also certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, the nation’s largest third-party certifier of female-owned businesses.
The laptops, smartphones and high-speed Internet that were not around when her teenagers were babies allows her to work anywhere. Being her own boss lets her decide when to take clients, and, in the summer when school is out, when to back off.
“I think I picked a career that was a good fit for me,” she said. “I couldn’t do this if I had a really demanding position where I had to be in an office or had to see patients morning and night.”
She now works about 25 hours a week but sees that expanding in a few years.
When her kids go to college and begin their own families and career paths, Belangia said, she sees herself taking on higher-profile clients and helping other working mothers learn how to balance career and life.
“I’d love to transition into sharing my story with other women,” she said. “There’s a lot of smart, educated moms out there with a lot of talent that if there was the right corporation or environment for them, they’d be able to do more.”